The Toy Makers

p>The multinational giants, executives from a multinational company, stood shoulder to shoulder, standing in a small circle, engrossed in mindless conversation, their eyes narrowed and wizened, their noses twitched and their jaws pursed. They stood and whiled away time, waiting for the Shatabdi Express to appear at Agra Railway Station’s platform. They had just been driven from their five-star hotels in air-conditioned cabs to the railway station where well-groomed white ladies and men had alighted and walked towards the shabby platform with an airy élan. They stood waiting for the train and each passing moment enveloped the platform in greater darkness, the dim lights switched on to beat the coal like blackness of the sky beyond the shed. The stench of engines and smoke filled the nostrils even though the train was nowhere in sight. The white men and their memsahibs stood in circle, chatting to beat the time as well as the discomfort.

Their Indian companions, a middle-aged couple, were engaged in the hundred pursuits of keeping them entertained, craning their necks to look out of the platform as if the engine could be maneuvered by such remote controlled devices, and providing them enough material to talk about. Mrs. Mehra, all powdered and perfumed, had selected all topics from the weather to the monuments of Agra and finally exhausted them all in her bid to keep the polite conversation going, her sweet voice, her Convent accent and her rolled R’s enchanting the audience only next to the Taj. Beads of perspiration mingled with her make-up and the powdered face was now streaks of two shades. Thankfully, where they stood, there wasn’t enough light and the foreigners couldn’t see her that well. They could simply smell the Tendre Poison that she wore and could only hear her sweet melodious chirpy voice. Her husband was busy craning his neck or asking every second porter that passed by them about the time of arrival of Shatabdi Express. “It’s about to come,” each one would say although fifteen minutes had already passed. The three tall white ladies and five big burly white gentlemen talked shoulder to shoulder in a circle with Mrs. Mehra and Mr. Mehra, who once in a while broke the chain to scan his neck towards the railway track and peer ahead in the darkness with pointed eyes.

For the first fifteen minutes, the platform had been extraordinarily quiet, perhaps because no other train had arrived or was about to arrive. Some people sat or slept on the dirty rusted benches. Some more slept with just a sheet below them on the floor of the dusty platform. The tea-stall and other vendors either stood gossiping in circles or perhaps enjoyed a little siesta. Soon the place began to fill up as more and more people arrived, perhaps passengers of the same train. The tea-stall vendor, who had been dozing off at his counter, began lighting his stove. The activity matched the babble that had begun to fill up the place. Everybody seemed to be getting busier. Even the lunatic dressed in a dirty, stained, and tattered shirt and a sack, sitting quietly in one corner playing with his matted locks of hair all this while, had begun to become more mobile; he was walking, scratching his bare chest and talking to himself. One of the white men watched this with renewed interest and Mr. Mehra decided to divert their attention and entertain the rest with some anecdotes of his railway journeys; of course, most of them were deliberately not Indian journeys. Most of the stories began with “when I boarded a train from Madrid to Rome…” or “from London to Paris…” and so on. It seemed Mr. Mehra had never really boarded any train in India. Either he hadn’t traveled around much or didn’t want to talk about it.

The warmth of the chatter was disturbed by the musical scream of one of the white ladies. Somebody had tugged at her with so much vigor that she let out a scream and turned around in horror to stare into the charcoal black eyes of a small boy with tattered clothes, on his head his soot-like hair that seemed to have been unwashed for the last over two months, his countenance impish and his palm outstretched. The others laughed at the sudden interruption and the woman blushed, her hands feeling her hot cheeks. They realized they were almost encircled by a sea of these young urchins, who had appeared from nowhere, tugging and pulling at people’s sleeves and asking for money. The loud laughter had left the two charcoal, black eyes staring in astute silence, forcing the boy to retreat in both fear and bewilderment. The lunatic took the place the little boy had left vacant. He sat down and began singing a song, his voice shrill, cracked and unbearably hideous. But unmindful of the disinterested audience of the white sahibs and memsahibs and the brown sahib and his memsahib, he sung on the top of his voice:

The Taj is beautiful, a spotless pearl.
Here lie buried the dead. Oh! girl
Death is beauty, beauty death
And here, we live close to the Taj
Doth not dressed in beauty at all
Ugly spirits and starvation we wear
When was life better
than beauty of death.
The Taj is beautiful, a spotless pearl

The man seemed to go on and on, much to the discomfiture of an embarrassed Mr. Mehra. He kept cursing under his breath and regretting the cancellation of the flight to Delhi. But his guests had to catch an early morning flight for United States. They were stuck with the Shatabdi Express and the dirty railway station. Mrs. Mehra, equally embarrassed, tried to divert the minds of their white guests away from this ugliness to something more “meaningful” like their old family heirlooms, their acres of land, their antiques and solitaires and how much they cost in different countries. The eyes of the white men and ladies oscillated from diamonds that flashed on Mrs. Mehra’s ears to the young urchins who pranced about, shouting, screaming and invading the entire platform around them. Their minds roved from the antique filled dreams of the Mehras to the dirty scrubby palms of those boys. They felt dizzy as if a whirlpool of so many different worlds moved inside their minds. Caught between the web of dreams and nightmares, they wished to turn blind to it all—those torn shabby clothes, those croaking voices of the street urchins, their filthy language, which they couldn’t understand but could recognize from the tone of its abusive character, their ruffian attitude. Some of them got together to beat up one, tore his already torn shirt into smithereens and ran away laughing while the defeated victim bawled at the top of his voice in the most unmelodious manner—just like the song of the lunatic who would begin to sing each time some new passenger would arrive.

In the midst of all this, despite the disgust and scorn filled in his heart at the bunch of these street ruffians who seemed to have outnumbered the country’s crores of deities on this platform alone, Mr. Mehra felt satisfied with a sense of achievement deep down inside, their Agra weekend had been such a success. The white men and women, representatives from a multinational firm, had been entertained thoroughly. They had an exhilarating time watching the Taj, the Agra Fort and the Fatehpur Sikri. They had spent time relaxing, swimming, dining and wining; and most importantly, the deal that the Mehras had been looking forward to had been signed. The Mehras had spent a week, five days in Delhi and a weekend in Agra, playing up to these white demi-gods from a multinational toy manufacturing company for the sole rights of manufacturing and marketing these in India. Mrs. Mehra had put on her best show of sycophancy; lauding every minute detail of the dresses and jewelry the women wore. Mr. Mehra had been convincing not as much with his figures and files, as much as he was with his emotional ruse. He had told those white men and ladies that since he belonged to the rural area in an era where there were no toys, this project was very close to his heart. “My father was a big landlord, there was always plenty of money in the family and plenty of land, but no toys, we made our own crude carts, dolls and wheels to play with. If good toys keep pouring in our markets from the West, surely no child would ever have as deprived a childhood as mine,” he had said. One of the white men had patted him on the back for his emotional outburst. “How eloquent,” one of the ladies had remarked and added that she was really touched. And finally the deal had been signed and Mr. Mehra had deemed himself, financially a big business tycoon, and morally…a child savior.

The street urchins still danced around him, their childhood a thousand times more deprived than his own. When he craned his neck to see the train for the umpteenth time, one of them bumped into him. He pushed the boy away rudely. Seconds later, the whistle of the engine could be heard and soon the train began to chug its way to the platform. The team got ready to board the train, everybody’s mind filled with thoughts. Mrs. Mehra thought of more solitaires, French chiffons and redoing her house. The white men and women thought of the mission accomplished, the world of glamour and toys. The platform and the street urchins dimmed and faded away in their minds.

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